Commentary Politics

How Long Does It Take a Southern White Democrat Elected by Black Voters to Shift to the Right? Less Than a Week. 

LaTosha Brown

This strategy and faulty thinking by Southern Democrats is short-sighted, unsustainable, and politically ineffective.

Over the past few days, many voters in Alabama who helped carry Doug Jones to a historic election victory have expressed frustration over recent comments from the senator-elect regarding both President Donald Trump’s alleged history of sexual harassment and the GOP tax bill. In an interview this week with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Jones said that he doesn’t agree with the Democrats who argue Trump should resign from office over the allegations regarding sexual assault and harassment because the allegations “were made before the election, and so people had an opportunity to judge before that election.” He also gave a less-than-clear answer on how he would have voted on the GOP tax bill, were he given the chance.

That Jones would pursue a faulty strategy of shifting to the right is not surprising. In fact, many of those who voted for him expected such a shift, although we didn’t necessarily expect to see it before the election was even certified. What we also did not expect, and what may be more troubling, is the feedback from supporters within the progressive community asking us to “be patient” with Jones. Such feedback is very reminiscent of the comments from white clergy members urging Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to wait—comments which gave birth to Dr. King’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” While my comments below are in no way comparable to that remarkable letter, they are my attempt to explain why we cannot wait.

Recently I had a discussion with a progressive white Democrat about the recent Alabama senatorial election. We talked about Jones’ apparent shift to the right less than one week post-election. My colleague, whom I consider both a progressive and staunch ally in this work, shared his belief that progressives should suspend judgment and recognize that Jones’ shift is part of a needed Southern strategy. We should not be quick to hold him accountable on what he says but wait to see how he actually casts his votes. 

Living in a red, Southern state is very nuanced and challenging. Therefore, I completely understand the line of thinking he and others might follow regarding what is necessary for a newly-elected Democrat in a Republican state. However, I believe that this strategy and faulty thinking by Southern Democrats is short-sighted, unsustainable, and politically ineffective. It is for that reason that I think it is imperative that Democratic voters hold newly elected officials’ feet to the fire right from the start. I think there is a lot more damage done and created when 1) we don’t hold electeds accountable starting immediately post election and 2) we allow them to distance themselves from their core support base—particularly Black voters. I believe our past acceptance of both of the aforementioned positions has had long-term devastating consequences on the Black community in particular.  

Those of us who have dedicated our work and lives to engaging and empowering Black and marginalized communities know that once we allow white candidates to shift right, history shows that they never (or almost never) prioritize the policies and issues most deeply affecting Black voters’ communities. In fact, in most instances these electeds will use the distancing-from-Black-voters tool to build “white political caché” in the South. The cycle of abandonment and lack of accountability never stops because Black voters become their Southern white rallying tool. Unfortunately, Black voters have a long history of being the political pawns of both parties; in recent years we even witnessed and experienced this with our own beloved President Barack Obama. Because of the insidious nature and pervasiveness of racism in this country, Black political abandonment has always generated some level of white political support in the South and in the nation. We have to change this paradigm.  

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I also think there is a larger issue of integrity and accountability here with Senator-elect Jones. I don’t think any of us expected Jones to be a Senator Ted Kennedy, but we did expect him to demonstrate some sense of accountability to those who elected him and not so quickly align his political message with those who have caused great, severe harm to the communities we serve. Amazingly, Jones is shifting to the right in less than a week!  

Let’s be clear, Doug Jones was elected in part because of the history of his deeply flawed Republican opponent Roy Moore, who was accused by several women of predatory sexual behavior—and attempted rape—more than 30 years ago, when they were young teens and he was in his early 30s. Yet ironically, when asked by Jake Tapper this weekend about his thoughts on pursuing the sexual allegations against Trump, Doug Jones essentially stated that he believes “we should just move on.” Imagine that. Regardless of why Jones made this statement (even though we can safely assume the reason why) the fact remains that he obviously lacks integrity and any sense of accountability to his base, and clearly doesn’t understand that just because someone is elected, their history of misogynistic or predatory behavior isn’t simply erased.

As a Black woman and feminist, I’m no longer willing to continue to leave my fate and the fate of people in the Deep South who are hurting in the hands of those who don’t have the moral fortitude, courage, or forward thinking to create a shift in the current paradigm of power. Historically, Black voters have blindly supported white candidates we believed (or at least hoped) would “remember us” and our issues legislatively while they publicly shifted or positioned themselves on the right. This has not been an effective strategy for us. The strategy of depending on blind, unaccountable white benevolence for building political power has never quite panned out for Black people, women, or people of color in the South. And it never will.

Additionally, I believe the other severe damage of Jones’ apparent pivot to the right is the devastating and traumatic impact on the psyche and spirits of Black people who went beyond the call of duty to over-perform in the last election cycle in Alabama. What message do we want to send Black voters? Do we think this strategy is sustainable? Are we still imploring a “just wait and see”‘ strategy for Black people more than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act? We will continue to tell Black voters, “Just hold on and wait because this is simply the best you will have to work with.” Do we think young Black voters will stand for this? 

We know that it is precisely the type of behavior from elected officials like Jones that creates an uphill burden for the Democratic Party, because it further alienates the Democratic base, feeds voter apathy, discourages civic participation, and supports a narrative that somehow Black people in the South are powerless and only pawns in this two-party system. It was by challenging and resisting this very faulty belief that we actually mobilized the tens of thousands of Black voters who participated in unprecedented numbers in the Alabama election.   

Sometimes we will focus so intently on the battle before us that we will lose the war. Last week’s election wasn’t about helping the Democrats gain more power, but it was about Black voters sending a strong and clear message to America that we know our collective power, we know that we are the core base for advancing progressive politics in this county, and we will no longer continue to be taken for granted by either party. This election was not about Doug Jones. It was about us. We care about health care, affordable housing, mass incarceration, education, immigrant rights, and tax reform. And as the people who put Doug Jones in power, we will demand his attention to these and other priority issues.

It is for that reason that I think it is critically important that progressives think more deeply about the direct and indirect consequences of Doug Jones’ actions and the intended and unintended damage that his public kowtowing to the conservative right will have on eroding the base and further alienating the very same voters who put him in office.  

My question to us is: What are we being called for at this moment? What is the vision that we seek to create around sharing power and resources?   

We have work to do. There is a need for some hard strategic work and thinking on how to build a new South by aligning and building a progressive coalition of voters in the South that can shift the political paradigm. There is simply no other way to victory. We can’t chart a new path with the same old Southern approach.  

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